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Human-powered ornithopter becomes first ever to achieve sustained flight

Aviation history was made when the University of Toronto's human-powered aircraft with flapping wings became the first of its kind to fly continuously.

The "Snowbird" performed its record-breaking flight on August 2 at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ont., witnessed by the vice-president (Canada) of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world-governing body for air sports and aeronautical world records. The official record claim was filed this month, and the FAI is expected to confirm the ornithopter's world record at its meeting in October.

For centuries engineers have attempted such a feat, ever since Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first human-powered ornithopter in 1485.

But under the power and piloting of Todd Reichert, an Engineering PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), the wing-flapping device sustained both altitude and airspeed for 19.3 seconds, and covered a distance of 145 metres at an average speed of 25.6 kilometres per hour.

"The Snowbird represents the completion of an age-old aeronautical dream," says lead developer and project manager Reichert. "Throughout history, countless men and women have dreamt of flying like a bird under their own power, and hundreds, if not thousands have attempted to achieve it. This represents one of the last of the aviation firsts."

The Snowbird weighs just 94 lbs. and has a wing span of 32 metres (105 feet). Although its wingspan is comparable to that of a Boeing 737, the Snowbird weighs less than all of the pillows on board. Pilot Reichert lost 18 lbs. of body weight this past summer to facilitate flying the aircraft.

With sustainability in mind, Aerospace Engineering graduate students of UTIAS learned to design and build lightweight and efficient structures. The research also promoted "the use of the human body and spirit," says Reichert.

"The use of human power, when walking or cycling, is an efficient, reliable, healthy and sustainable form of transportation. Though the aircraft is not a practical method of transport, it is also meant to act as an inspiration to others to use the strength of their body and the creativity of their mind to follow their dreams."

The Snowbird development team is comprised of two University of Toronto Engineering graduate students: Reichert, and Cameron Robertson (MASc 2009) as the chief structural engineer; UTIAS Professor Emeritus James D. DeLaurier as faculty advisor; and community volunteers Robert and Carson Dueck. More than 20 students from the University of Toronto and up to 10 exchange students from Poitiers University, France, and Delft Technical University, Netherlands, also participated in the project.

"This achievement is the direct result of Todd Reichert's dedication, perseverance, and ability and adds to the already considerable legacy of Jim DeLaurier, UTIAS's great ornithopter pioneer," said Professor David Zingg, Director of UTIAS. "It also reflects well on the rigorous education Todd received at the University of Toronto. We're very proud of Todd and the entire team for this outstanding achievement in aviation history."

A photo opportunity for journalists, with the ornithopter on display, will be held tomorrow, Thursday, September 23rd at 1 p.m. at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ontario. RSVP to Elizabeth Raymer by Thursday at 10 a.m., and to receive directions.

Video footage is available in 720p on Vimeo, at (For 1080p, please contact Elizabeth Raymer for FTP information.) Images are available as high-resolution jpegs at

About Engineering at the University of Toronto

The Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at the University of Toronto is the premier engineering institution in Canada. Established as the School of Practical Science in 1873, Engineering at U of T ranks first in Canada and eighth in the world in the 2009 Times Higher Education–QS World University Rankings and 2010 U.S. News & World Report rankings. With approximately 4,850 undergraduates, 1,600 graduate students and 230 professors, Engineering at U of T is in the forefront of global research. University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) is a unique, national centre of academic excellence in Aerospace Science and Engineering within the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

For more information, please contact:

Elizabeth Raymer
Communications and Media Relations Coordinator
Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, University of Toronto
Todd Reichert
PhD Aerospace Engineering candidate, pilot and lead developer
University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies
Cell: 416-995-3278
Home: 613-835-4224

Elizabeth Raymer | EurekAlert!
Further information:

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